With commercial SAR, climate scientists and intelligence experts will be able to measure changes in activity every few minutes, rather than every couple of days.
The number of commercial synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) satellites in orbit is on pace to grow exponentially over the next few years, from about 600 satellites to more than 4,500. That level of coverage, combined with SAR’s ability to record accurate measurements even amidst severe weather events, promises game-changing persistence: climate scientists and intelligence experts will be able to measure changes in activity every few minutes, rather than every couple of days.
“That allows you to not only build a pattern of activity, but also to get to a predictive level of assessment where you’re actually finding leading indicators for things that are happening,” says Eric Jensen, president of Irvine, Calif.-based ICEYE US, a SAR satellite operator, during a panel discussion of SAR’s potential at GEOINT Foreward 2022. “I don’t think there’s one killer application, I think there’s a killer capability that we’re seeing come to fruition for the industry to take advantage of, and then use that to find answers to hard problems in different mission domains.”
Reaching that potential will require more than launching the coming wave of satellites, however. SAR data is less intuitive and more voluminous than traditional satellite images, and the companies operating those commercial satellites are working to expose software developers to SAR data’s format, as well as the sorts of insights it makes possible.
“When we all go and work with young people and give free datasets … you’re going to find apps that that no one in this room has ever conceived of,” said Gabe Dominocielo, cofounder of Austin, Texas-based SAR microsatellite maker Umbra, and a member of the GEOINT 2022 panel. “These companies are creating generations of entrepreneurs through the datasets that are being released.”
Not many years ago, those datasets were unwieldy and difficult to distribute. That’s no longer true, thanks to cloud-based computing—so while advances in satellite and sensor technology are helping usher in an era of SAR prominence, the proliferation and distribution of earth-bound computing power plays a role as well.
The challenges now are in conveying to potential users how SAR data can be used to glean new insights. GEOINT panel moderator Steven Omick, president and CEO of Riverside Research, asked about SAR’s potential to aid in the fight against climate change, for example.
The panelists responded with a range of use cases, from measuring the erosion of polar ice caps or springtime ice melt in the Bering Sea, to tracking activity inside a volcano, to alerting cleanup crews to the extent and direction of an oil spill by detecting the presence of oil on water. SAR data could also be used to detect environmental bad actors.
“Folks who are exacerbating the problem with things like illegal deforestation until this point have been operating almost with impunity. And now we can identify where that is happening, and direct the folks who can take action against these types of bad actors,” said Amy Hopkins, vice president and general manager at San Francisco-based SAR satellite operator Capella Space, and a member of the GEOINT 2022 panel.
Among the most exciting features of commercial SAR’s rise is the frequency, reliability and detail with which users will be able to monitor sites around the world. By collecting immense amounts of baseline data, variations from the norm will stick out more readily. That insight has immense potential from a security perspective.
“Once I understand what normal looks like, I can more quickly understand what not-normal looks like,” Hopkins said. The ability to quickly recognizing abnormal activity can provide a crucial tactical edge—so much so that Hopkins said her government clients are so impressed with the capabilities of commercial SAR that they’re not sure it should be commercial.
“The first response is, ‘Oh my gosh, I cannot believe this is unclassified. They have this need to want to go and lock it up in a safe,” Hopkins said.